One of the most emblematic dishes from al-Andalus are the fried cheese buns, known as mujabbana (مجبّنة), for which a number of recipes can be found in the two Andalusian cookery books. This particular re-creation is based on one from The Exile’s Cookbook. And to make it even more special, it was made with cheese from the same source. A future post will be devoted to the latter, for those who want to try their hand at whipping up some medieval cheese.
This particular variety of mujabbana calls for a semolina dough and fresh cheese which has been washed with water and kneaded into a marrow-like consistency before being left to dry. After adding aniseed, mint juice and fresh coriander juice everything is kneaded together. Once the cheese mix is ready, it’s time to put a pan with olive oil on the heat and start shaping the mujabbanas. It’s a simple — but slightly delicate — process which involves taking a piece of dough and wrapping it over the cheese mixture before deep-frying each piece, making sure that it is golden on all sides. They are served with fresh butter or melted honey, and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.
The author also gives an alternative, which, so we are told, is how the Andalusians prefer it; the mujabbanas are served in a bowl sprinkled with cinnamon, aniseed and sugar, whereas in the middle there should be a dish with honey into which to dip the buns. A third variant is to mix egg whites into the dough as ‘this will further enhance the taste and delight.’ I can’t think of anyone who would argue with that once they’ve tried it!
The modern Spanish almojábana denotes a popular Colombian cheese bread and, in Spain, a type of cheesecake, or even a fritter made without cheese.
As I had some of the muḥammaṣ grains left, I decided to put them to good use to make another Andalusian recipe, this time from an anonymous collection, which hails from the same century (13th c.) as The Exile’s Cookbook.
The recipe is a variant of one for making ‘cooked rice’ (أرزّ مطبوخ, aruzz matbukh) but which could also be used for itriyya (إطرية, ‘noodles’) or fidaw(i)sh (فداوش) — the ancestor of the Spanish fideos (a vermicelli-type pasta), as is done for the re-creation. The author explains that fidawsh could refer to dough in the shape of long wheat grains, round like coriander seeds (in the Bijāya region), or sheets as thin as paper. The second type is very similar in size to the historical muḥammaṣ, and thus allowed me to use up the remainder of my batch.
The recipe is also unusual in that it makes use of a bain-marie. The semolina pellets are put in a pot (a bowl works well too) with milk which is placed inside a container (the recipe mentions a copper cauldron) filled up with water halfway. The mixture is left to cook, without stirring, while the milk is topped up if it dries out. The cooking continues until the pellets are done and dissolved in the milk. Butter is also added at an appropriate point. The dish is served spread out on a platter or shallow bowl, and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, as well as another dash of butter.
A similar recipe is still made today, and in Algeria is known as ‘barkūkas(h)‘, but also bears some resemblance to the sweet Tunisian couscous, masfouf (مسفوف).
It may also be the ancestor of the medieval European classic the frumenty (a corruption of the French froment, ‘wheat’), a sweet porridge made with wheat, milk, cinnamon and sugar.
This recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook for ‘stuffed tubes’ (قنانيط محشوة, qanānīṭ mahshuwa) is one of the ancestors of the modern Sicilian speciality cannoli, albeit sans the cheese filling. In fact, it was quite a popular sweet across the Muslim world, since recipes can also be found in a collection from Mamluk Egypt (14th c.), where they appear as ‘Zaynab’s fingers’ (أصابع زينب, aṣābiʿ Zaynab), but they go back even further, to Abbasid times, when they were called ḥalāqīm (حلاقيم) — the plural of ḥulqūm (حلقوم, ‘wind-pipe’) — and were made with a filling of walnuts and sugar, with the ends dipped in syrup and sprinkled with dyed sugar candy.
It takes a bit of a delicate touch to make the 13th-century Andalusian version of these wonderful sweets, but the result is fantastic! After kneading flour into a dough, it is wrapped around cane reeds, with the dough cut into small tubes. While the dough is drying, it is time to make the filling which will consist of skimmed honey, pounded almonds and various aromatics. After carefully removing the dough tubes, they are fried in olive oil and then stuffed with the filling, topped off with an almond at either end. Arrange on a plate, dust with cinnamon and sugar, and then it’s time to tuck in!
A thirteenth-century recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook. Though wheat was the grain of choice, millet was also used frequently by Andalusians: indeed, the author tells us that “of all the non-wheat breads, this is the most prized among Andalusians, and they eat a lot of it when it is millet-harvesting season in their country.” Besides millet flour, salt and water are added to make a dough which is then shaped into round loaves, which can be either thick or thin. To round things off, sprinkle on sesame, aniseed and fennel seeds.
A recipe from The Exile’s Cookbook for a variation of the famous Berber (Amazigh) dish couscous, this one involving hand-rolled large grains known as muhammas (محمّص). The word is derived from ḥimmiṣ (حمّص), ‘chickpea’, in reference to the shape and size. It is still used in this sense in North African Arabic dialects, alongside others like barkūk, barkukes, abāzīn or mardūd. The importance that is attached to this kind of couscous is such that in some regions it is known, simply, as ‘aysh (‘life’).
It is different from the usual couscous in that semolina is kneaded and shaped into pellets the size of peppercorns which are then dried in the sun before cooking them with the meat of your choice. For the re-creation, chicken was used, but it works just as well with beef or mutton. A wonderful dish.
This is an Andalusian take on what are called ‘Abbasid qaṭā’if‘, a filled crepe, by the author of the 13th-century cookery book. There are quite some similarities with today’s sweets by the same name, a Ramadan favourite in many countries.
The first thing to do is to make flour for the crepes with semolina, hot water, salt and yeast. The filling is made with sugar and almonds, perfumed with aromatic spices (cloves and spikenard) and rose water. After cooking the crepes, they are stuffed with the filling, and then sealed by dredging the edges in starch dissolved into water. The crepes are fried in almond oil and when they have turned golden. Set them aside to drain off the oil and then drench in rose syrup. Serve and enjoy!
According to the 11th-century pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, this kind of qaṭā’if is beneficial for those addicted to physical activity. It is very nourishing, but slows down digestion and causes stones in the urethra. But not to worry! These negative effects can be rectified by eating sweet and sour pomegranates or oxymel.
This 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian recipe is made with chickens — and, if you have some available, capons –, as well as salt, olive oil, pepper, coriander, onions, and chickpeas. The dough is made with semolina, and is folded and smeared with clarified butter (ghee), just like for making musamman. The pastry is cut into pieces which are put in the top pot of a couscoussier, with the chicken being in the lower chamber. When everything is done, the chicken pieces, onion, and chickpeas are put on top of the pastry, with the edges of the serving dish being lined with boiled eggs, olives, and preserved limes. A sprinkle of cinnamon and ginger, and voilà, it’s ready to tuck in!
The author explains that this recipe is a Tunisian speciality, especially in the capital Tunis, and that it is often made at celebrations. It is very similar, of course, to the modern Moroccan dish rfissa (رفيسة), though this is usually prepared with lentils.
A wonderful savoury biscuit, made with a dough including flour, water, yeast, olive oil, and fennel seeds. Shape the dough into small rings and then bake. Very easy to make and delicious — what’s not to like? And if you think that the result reminds you of something, you’d be right; the biscuits are probably the medieval ancestor of the Italan fennel taralli!
This is the Andalusian variant of today’s qatayif, which is a folded crepe with a filling of cream or nuts especially associated with Ramadan all over the Muslim world. Recipes for this type of crepe can be found in a number of cookery books. The one recreated here is from a 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian treatise. The typical feature — then as now — is that the batter is cooked on only one side.
The word qatayif — though the linguistically correct spelling is, in fact, qata’if (قطائف) — is the plural of qatifa (قطيفة), which denoted a kind of cover to be wrapped around the body when sleeping. This type of qatayif was called mushahhada, which is derived from shuhd, meaning ‘comb honey’.
It starts off with semolina, hot water, yeast and salt. Once you have a batter of the desired consistency, it is dropped into a pan in the form of small round crepes. Once little holes appear on the top, i.e. the uncooked side, remove them, and put in others. The batter can also be added with some salt and milk, if needed. Once you have finished the batch, serve the crepes in a bowl and pour on boiled honey mixed with clarified or fresh butter. Finally, sprinkle on pepper, cinnamon and sugar, and then enjoy!
The present-day qatayif are usually deep-fried after stuffing and then drenched in honey or syrup, though there is an unfried stuffed variety, known as qatayif asafiri (قطائف عصافيري), which translates as ‘the sparrows’ qatayif‘. The Andalusian preparation here is actually closest to the modern Moroccan pancake, the baghrir (بغرير), known in Tunisia as ghrayef (غرايف), which is eaten without a filling, just dipped in butter and honey.
This recipe from 13th-century Muslim Spain is a whimsical twist on a popular dish in that period and region, the isfiriyya (اسفريا), a kind of omelette. This particular variation is known as ‘counterfeit’ (مزوّرة, muzawwara), because it uses chickpea (gram) flour to make something that looks like isfiriyya. Gram flour is widely available now, but for the purists, this is how you can make it yourself from scratch (which is both cheaper and more fun, anyway!): pound chickpeas, remove the skins and grind. For the batter, add eggs and yeast, as well as some fennel seeds and other spices. The mixture is pan-fried into a thin cake, like a crepe. Serve with honey or a melted cheese mixture — an irresistable delicacy that will make you come back for seconds!
There is an interesting historical coda, as these pancakes appear to have received a second lease of life in Italy, where they are known as farinata, primarily associated with Liguria and Genoa, which is (wrongly!) credited as being its birthplace. It is also found in other Italian regions, under different names, like cecina (Tuscany), while along the French Riviera it appears as socca. Interestingly enough, its only modern avatar on the Iberian Peninsula is the national dish of Gibraltar, calentita.